Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Because of the deeply polarized nature of Israel-Palestine discourse, one of my most difficult, frustrating tasks as a Jewish educator is to get people to understand — and frankly, to accept — the concept of Jewish Indigeneity. As a people colonized multiple times over over the past 2700 years, beginning with the Assyrian conquest, many of us have internalized antisemitic and colonizer narratives about our very identity. Additionally, there is the issue of the politicization of Jewish identity within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which I personally think is a shame, given that Jewish peoplehood predates the current geopolitical conflict by 3000 years.
My interest in this topic goes way beyond the scope of the geopolitical implications of Israel-Palestine. I feel strongly that Jews deserve to know who we are and where we come from, so that we that we can begin to heal from the violence of the past 2700 years.
The dictionary definition for the word “indigenous” is “(1) originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country; native; (2) relating to or being a people who are the original, earliest known inhabitants of a region, or are their descendants.”
Jews, being the direct cultural *and* genetic descendants of the ancient Canaanites, so much so that we (along with Samaritans) are the last remaining tribe to speak their language, easily fit that definition. For more on the Canaanite ancestry of the ancient Israelites, I recommend my post WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS.
Indigeneity has a specific, internationally-agreed upon definition. This definition was coined by the Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This definition took decades to compile, beginning with the first meeting of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982, and was not finalized until 2009.
The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
In the following slides, I’ll address each of these points in the context of Jewish Indigeneity.
(1) SELF-IDENTIFICATION AS INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: While the usage of the term “Indigenous” outside of the Native Peoples of the Americas was rare until the 1970s, Jewish representatives to the United Nations used the term to describe ourselves as early as 1947. In a speech to the United Nations in 1947, Eliahu Eliachar stated: “As the Indigenous population of Palestine, we demand the restitution of our rights…and the opening of the gates to all Jews in need of a home, whether from East or West…”
(2) HISTORICAL CONTINUITY WITH PRE-COLONIAL AND PRE-SETTLER SOCIETY: Jewish identity and peoplehood predates the conquests, imperialism, and colonialism of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and British. Today’s Jews are indisputably the cultural, historical, linguistic, and genetic descendants of the ancient Israelites.
(3) STRONG LINK TO TERRITORIES AND SURROUNDING NATURAL RESOURCES: reverence for the Land of Israel (not to be confused with the State of, as no state is beyond criticism) is central to Jewish culture, belief, and identity. We call ourselves the People of Israel, our calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, nearly all of our holidays celebrate the harvest of the Land of Israel, many of the 613 mitzvot (“commandments”) can only be performed in the Land of Israel, and more. For more on this, I recommend my post JEWISH HOLIDAYS & THE LAND.
The concept among Indigenous Peoples that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/G-d is quite universal, though of course Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous, and as such, different tribes across the world have different beliefs and different ways through with which they exercise their stewardship over their lands. For example, among Algonquian Peoples, there is a legend that, when the world was created, a godly entity known as the Great Spirit (“Aasha Monetoo”) gave the land to the Shawnee tribe (an Algonquian-speaking tribe). Similarly, the Hebrew G-d states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that G-d had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation.
(4) DISTINCT SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, OR POLITICAL SYSTEMS: Kohanim, or the inherited Jewish (and Samaritan) priestly class, is a social system that is unique to our tribes and long predates colonial conquest. Non-Kohen Levites also fall within this category, as they also carry special duties and responsibilities within our tribe.
Halacha, or Jewish law, is also an example of a distinct social, economic, and political system.
(5) DISTINCT LANGUAGE, CULTURE, AND BELIEFS: Judaism is the collection of mythologies, spiritual beliefs, and laws of the Jewish People. Hebrew, the ancestral language of the Jewish and Samaritan People, is the only Canaanite language that is still spoken to this day. We, of course, also have a distinct culture, including holidays, a calendar, dress (e.g. tallit, tefillin, tzitzit), and more.
(6) NON-DOMINANT GROUPS OF SOCIETY: this is where it gets tricky, which I will discuss in an upcoming slide. Nevertheless, Jews form about 0.2% of the world population, 15.5% of the population of the Levant, and less than 2% of the total population of the Middle East.
(7) RESOLVE TO MAINTAIN AND REPRODUCE THEIR ANCESTRAL ENVIRONMENTS AND SYSTEMS AS DISTINCTIVE PEOPLES AND COMMUNITIES: Jewishness is inherited. It doesn’t matter if a Jewish person does not believe in Judaism; they are still Jewish. Most Jewish communities practice matrilineal descent, though others that do not see the Oral Torah and Talmud as binding, such as Karaite Jews, have traditionally practiced patrilineal descent.
The continuation of the Jewish People over generations is of utmost importance to us. It is considered a mitzvah to have children, and our survival as a people is central to our identity, as evidenced by the affirmation “Am Israel Chai,” meaning “the People of Israel Live.”
HISTORY OF TERM
The word “Indigenous” comes from the Latin word “indigena,” meaning “sprung from the land, native.” Contrary to popular belief, “indigena” is not derived from “Indian,” though it was almost exclusively used to refer to the Native Peoples of the Americas until the 1970s. The first documented use of the word is from 1804.
In the 1970s, the word was first used as a term to link to the experiences, issues, and struggles of colonized peoples. Soon after, James Anaya, the former Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, coined the following definition: "living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest.”
In other words, under this (now obsolete) definition, Indigenous Peoples must be “dominated by others” and “find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest.”
This sentiment was echoed in the works of renowned Palestinian writer Edward Said.
This definition has now long been replaced with the current United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues definition. Regardless, it presents some serious inconsistencies and problems, which I will lay out in the following slides.
If, to be Indigenous, one must be “dominated by others,” that brings up the following issues:
(1) first and perhaps most worryingly, it defines Indigenous identity through the actions of the colonizer. All peoples should have the right to define themselves, and Indigenous Peoples should get to define their stewardship over their land through their own beliefs, customs, and other ancestral traditions.
(2) some Indigenous tribes, such as the Sentinelese, are uncontacted, and, as such, have never been colonized. This definition excludes them.
(3) it strips power and agency away from Indigenous Peoples. If, like Jews (and other Indigenous Peoples, such as Fijians), an Indigenous tribe retains its autonomy over its ancestral land, does that mean that they are no longer Indigenous? Indigeneity should not be contingent on remaining powerless. I’ve interviewed a number of Indigenous folks belonging to a number of tribes worldwide over the course of my research, and they all agree that this position is anti-Indigenous.
(4) regarding Jews: as a people, we and our ancestral land were brutally dominated for 2500 years. We endured systemic oppression, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and genocide many times over at the hands of a number of colonizing empires. How should a mere 74 years of Israeli statehood suddenly fundamentally shift the identity that we’ve cultivated for 3000 years, or our stewardship over our ancestral land? The suggestion is not only insulting, but logically, it also makes no sense.
Perhaps the one point of contention in the current, accepted definition of Indigeneity per the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is point 6: “non-dominant groups of society.” In my view, this can be interpreted in two ways: (1) dominant meaning the majority, or (2) dominant meaning those who hold systemic power. Either way, I see problematic implications:
(1) what does society entail? A country? A continent? A culture (e.g. “Western society”)?
(2) borders (and, as such, social systems and societies) are arbitrary and perpetually shifting. Borders are generally drawn by colonizers (e.g. such as was the case with Africa and the entirety of the Middle East) with little regard for the continuity and considerations of Indigenous tribes in those regions.
(3) Indigenous Peoples are the dominant majority in a number of nations. For instance, 89.5% of the population of Greenland is Indigenous Inuit. 56.8% of Fiji is comprised of Indigenous Fijians. 92.6% of Samoa (not to be confused with American Samoa) is comprised of Indigenous Samoans. All of these groups are considered Indigenous Peoples.
(4) Indigenous Peoples worldwide who’ve retained autonomy (or who never lost autonomy) over their ancestral lands, are now in a position of systemic power within their societies. This does not change their history, identity, or stewardship over their land, nor should it change their status as Indigenous Peoples.
(5) Jews form about 74% of the population of Israel. Within Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are about equal. The vast majority of the Middle East, which could be considered a “society,” however, is Arab, with Jews comprising only about 2% of the region. In the Arab world (i.e. society), Jews hold zero systemic power, seeing as we have been subjugated to unequal laws for centuries. 850,000 Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world in the 20th century.
At the end of the day, Indigeneity, just like race and ethnicity, is a social construct. As such, various definitions might arise and evolve over time. The problem arises, in my view, when we cling to a now defunct definition (i.e. the James Anaya definition) with the purpose of stripping Jews from our connection to and stewardship over our ancestral land. It’s even more infuriating when this is all done in the name of a 74-year-old conflict, when Jewish peoplehood dates back over 3000 years.
In the grand scope of Jewish history, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is no more than a blip (for context: the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian Conflict makes up no more than 2.5% of Jewish history).
The term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). In Hebrew, Jew is “Yehudi(t),” meaning someone from “Yehuda” (Judah). The term Judaism — “Yahadut” in Hebrew — could be translated as “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being Jewish.”
Jews have virtually everything in common with other Indigenous tribes worldwide, including but not limited to our displacement(s) from our homeland at the hands of foreign empires, and the push to revive our ancestral language, Hebrew. For example, other Indigenous tribes worldwide such as the Sámi have studied the revival of Hebrew in their quest to revitalize their own ancestral languages. The obsession, then, with denying our Indigeneity has a name: antisemitism.
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